Part One will be the Narrative of what happened. Part Two will be the day-by-day planning for this trip.
Mirmac1 got e-mails via public disclosure and they paint a very damning picture. Because of my concerns over this troubling incident, I wrote a full report to the State Auditor. I can only say that I believe there may have been some illegalities in what happened but that's not my call.
I DO think whether or not funds were misused, some of it feels unethical and it is clear there is a heavy push - from outside the district - on those inside the district for more and more pre-K in Seattle Schools.
There are a couple of SPS individuals who are either myopic or simply do not care about how their push for pre-K could affect/impact other programs and that money is scarce. There was very much of a "just find me the money for this trip" attitude.
I want to make clear this is not a judgment on where we go in this district about Pre-K. I believe in preschool and I think it could be key to creating a better beginning for students coming into public schools I still have to write up an interview I did with the City's Office of Education about this issue.
However, I am getting a strong whiff that the City and the City Council are quietly making many plans, likely with the district, about how to roll this out that they are NOT making public. My belief is they want to get the money and THEN tell us the plan.
Personally, I don't like that. It feels like a "yes" vote for the City's Pre-K plan will give those pushing it a mandate to implement it however they want and be able to say "voters wanted this." (What was it Hall & Oates said? "I can't go for that - no can do." That's how I feel.)
The state-funded primary mission of Seattle Public Schools is K-12 education. There is no mandate for the district to provide pre-K (except for Special Education preschool). The district does supply preschool - in about 32 schools - through other entities like Head Start, but it is not the main focus for SPS. When the state has been taken to court over funding for K-12 education and found wanting (see the State Supreme Court's McCleary decision), it is hard to fathom the district spending so much time and so many resources on Pre-K. But, for some reason, this has become a primary concern of the district to the point that it is now included in their Strategic Plan.
The Seattle City Council passed a bill, CB 118114, to send a measure to the ballot for November 2014 on a Seattle Preschool for All program. They have included Seattle Schools in this bill, believing they need the district to be a "partner" in this effort for several reasons. 1) space for preschools (which the district has virtually none but the City continues to push for it), 2) expertise in early childhood learning (SPS has a office for Early Childhood Learning) and 3) for public support.
In early March 2014, Mayor Murray, three City Councilpersons and about 35 others went to a preschool conference and then on a tour of three cities - Boston, Washington, D.C. and Jersey City, N.J. Four Seattle schools representatives also went - Cashel Toner, head of Early Learning, Keisha Scarlett, principal at South Shore K-8, Laurie Morrison, principal at Graham Hill and Flip Herndon, head of Facilities. As well, School Board member, Stephan Blanford, attended. (Superintendent Banda was invited but did not go. As well, Cashel Toner invited Shauna Heath, head of Teaching & Learning, another staffer, Michael A. Stone, and Ex Director Kelly Aramaki.) All the SPS attendees went at the invitation of Councilmember Tim Burgess. Only people invited by Burgess' office could attend.
Councilman Tim Burgess arranged the trip and sent out invitations to those he wanted to attend. (Initially, another SPS employee, Deputy Superintendent Charles Wright, was scheduled to go but pulled out at the last minute.) The trip was called the Preschool Study Mission.
Thus began, for SPS, an endless round of e-mail messages among various staffers, trying to 1) get permission for staff to go and, even before permission was granted Superintendent Jose Banda, 2) finding dollars to pay for both the conference and the travel between cities for those SPS attendees and naming which funding area in SPS those dollars would come from.
A cache of public disclosure e-mails - available to be read at Scribd - shows just how much time was taken to arrange this trip by various SPS staff and also the machinations in finding district dollars to pay the nearly $14K it took for the attendees to go on this trip. (Mr. Wright ended up not going but it is unclear if the district got a refund on his airline ticket or conference reservation which was $1800 itself.)
In an e-mail from the Public Disclosure office, it is stated that Ms. Scarlett and Ms. Morrison's costs were paid through the school they work at - South Shore K-8. (To note, South Shore is the only school in the district that is in a partnership with a non-profit group - League of Education Voters - LEV - whereby they receive about $1M extra in funding. How this money gets used and if it was used for this purpose is unclear to me but Scarlett and Morrison's costs did get paid in that manner. Whether it was the appropriate use for the funds is not my call.)
The e-mail says Mr. Herndon was funded thru "Capital" but I don't know what fund.
Director Blanford's travel -per his request - was "scholarshipped" by either the Chamber of Commerce and/or the Alliance for Education. It is also unclear if any School Board office funds and/or City Council funds were involved for his trip.
The e-mail says Cashel Toner's travel expenses were paid "from their department funds."
All quite vague, no?
I will be supplying all the codes used for payments but they are numbers/letters so it is not possible for me to discern exactly what pots of money were used but I will document the "cost centers" named by Budget staff.
- Tim Burgess' office asked SPS for a list of people who could go. His office made clear there were no City funds to pay for anyone else but city officials. Cashel Toner seemed to be the point person from SPS and she initially was trying to persuade seven people from the district to go (not including Blanford). Frankly, I think one staff person and one Board member would have been enough.
My take is that Burgess wanted as many SPS people as possible to go and especially Flip Herndon. Why? Because he needs Herndon to be on-board with this effort and to want to find the room at SPS schools for this effort. Burgess also needs as many people within the district to go out and preach the gospel of his plan as possible.
- Where else is that pressure coming from? LEV. So LEV's foundation likely paid for Scarlett and Morrison's costs (although Scarlett worries in one e-mail that she "will get in trouble.") Chris Korsmo, the head of LEV, sent an e-mail on March 18th to the Superintendent about the trip (and cc'd Tim Burgess, Keisha Scarlett and Holly Miller at the City's Office of Education) and said this(emphasis mine):
The District has a real opportunity right now to grow this highly successful model (South Shore). There are several new elementary schools opening in the District over the next few years and while the window for including this model in those school designs is small and closing, it is nevertheless there. Immediate action is necessary to seize these opportunities for our youngest learners, but the benefits for all would far out-pace any disruption or changes to designs and plans. It is after all, easier to get it right the first time than to retro-fit, as we’ve had to do with expanded technology and other changes to our education model.
LEV sent the Kormo letter onto SPS's head of Communications, Lesley Rogers, who then asks Cashel Toner how to "partner" with LEV. This e-mail was sent to several people including Flip Herndon who replies:
Except for the part where they still think we can have all the space.
Rogers replies, "Agreed - we can clarify that part."
So it seems clear that several entities - the City Council and LEV - believe there IS room at current schools for preschools AND that specific preschool rooms should be added to any new elementaries. Where that room comes from, the costs to redo designs and how it all gets paid for does not seem to concern Korsmo.
- the sheer amount of time and effort to get this trip organized was ridiculous. I cannot believe the district when they say "no money" and "too much work" for staff when this is what they do with their time.
I believe there is internal and external pressure on the district to become involved in this project when our district has both severe capacity issues AND financial pressures. That district officials felt they had to send multiple staffers and considered dipping into baseline funding as well as federal funds (Title One) is deeply troubling.
Next up: a day-by-day accounting of what was being said and done.